What Is Up With David Phelps?

Phelps vs TOR 2014 When Joe made his selections for the Opening Day roster, I expected nothing but good things for David Phelps.  Even though he didn't beat out Michael Pineda for the final rotation spot, he entered the season as one of the more experienced pitchers in the bullpen.  With all the changes in that group and the middle relief hierarchy in front of D-Rob unsettled, I thought this was going to be the year that Phelps established himself as a key part of the bullpen going forward.

We're only 6 games in, so that may very well be the case when all is said and done, but the start to Phelps' season has been bad, bad enough to wonder if there's something wrong with him.  In 2 appearances, Phelps has allowed 4 ER on 4 hits and 2 walks.  Of the 4 hits, 3 of them have been home runs, leaving Phelps with a brutal 10.80 ERA and 13.60 FIP.  As he's gotten knocked around, fellow young righty reliever Adam Warren has shined in his 2 appearances and Dellin Betances was outstanding in his first.  It may only be 6 games into the season, but Phelps could be looking at a demotion to mop-up duty already.

So what's the problem with Phelps?  His velocity is right in line with what he's thrown the last 2 seasons and he has struck out 5 batters in 3.1 innings, so it doesn't appear to be an issue with stuff or injury.  It's worth noting, however, that Phelps isn't throwing his fastballs as much as he usually does.  He's thrown his 4-seamer only 22.7% of the time according to PITCHf/x, and his 2-seamer 13.6%, both down from last year.  There's an uptick in cutter usage, 9.1% from 1.9% last year, so perhaps Phelps is still working on that pitch and trying to find the right feel for it.  But overall he's leaned much more heavily on his offspeed pitches (54.6% sliders and curveballs) than he has in the past.

Another thing that stands out in Phelps' small sample size is the lack of swings and misses he's induced.  He hasn't gotten a single whiff on his 4-seamer or his slider despite throwing those pitches the most, and he's only gotten 2 altogether on his other pitches.  A quick look at his pitch location plot doesn't reveal any glaring problem areas, save for the cluster of 4-seamers up in the zone, but it's safe to say that he hasn't been locating his pitches where he wants to and isn't fooling hitters with what he's throwing when they aren't missing anything and are parking 75% of the hits they get off of him in the outfield seats.

Of course, it's difficult to draw any solid conclusions from 2 early April outings.  The most likely explanation given the small sample size and early season context is just bad luck.  There's not much in his peripherals to suggest that anything is mechanically or physically wrong with Phelps, although that could be another plausible explanation based on the arm problems he had late last season.  It looks like a simple case of a pitcher still trying to find the handle on his stuff, specifically the new pitches (cutter and knuckle curveball) he's working on adding to his repertoire.  That said, Phelps would serve himself well to turn things around and have a few stronger outings soon.  He's the only glaring weakness on an otherwise strong pitching staff after 6 games and he could find himself stuck in mop-up duty for a while if the rest of the 'pen keeps pitching well.

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